Hatay, Turkey — A Syrian activist devoted to de-mining the border between Syria and Turkey was among six injured Saturday by a landmine placed on a trail that criss-crosses the two countries.
Mazen Hajisa is a 25-year old Syrian activist who has conducted an improvised campaign to remove scores of Soviet- and Russian-made anti-personnel mines that the Syrian army recently laid along the frontier.
In an interview with CNN in March, Hajisa demonstrated how he dug up the deadly devices armed only with a kabob skewer, without any protective equipment in the event of a blast.
Reached by telephone on Saturday at a hospital in the Turkish border city of Hatay, Hajisa told CNN the mine strike occurred before dawn, as he and five other men were walking into Syria to bring refugees back to Turkey.
“Suddenly we heard an explosion,” Hajisa said, sounding exhausted over the phone. “We fell to the ground. Then we looked at two of the guys and their feet were gone. We saw pieces of their feet.”
Hajisa said he was lightly wounded by the blasts.
Murad Hajisa, one of the two men who led the pre-dawn procession, was far less fortunate.
He lay barely conscious in a Hatay hospital, his left foot still precariously attached. A red and white scarf was still tied above his foot where Syrian villagers attempted to staunch the bleeding.
Another victim, Shakir Shigri, had his left leg amputated in surgery.
Turkish authorities said the Syrian army began planting mine fields along stretches of the border earlier this winter.
The landmines appear to be part of an effort to close the widely-traveled smugglers’ trails that wind through this long Middle Eastern frontier.
The new measure has added another potentially lethal obstacle to the already perilous journey that has been made by tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey. More than 23,000 Syrians are currently living in Turkish refugee camps.
Hajisa was part of a small team of volunteers who claimed to have removed more than 300 of the deadly devices from the frontier. During a visit to the border, last March, he showed CNN two Styrofoam coolers holding a dozen unexploded anti-personnel mines.
“Any use of antipersonnel landmines is unconscionable,” wrote the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch, in a report published last March on new Syrian minefields buried along the borders of both Turkey and Lebanon.
One hundred fifty-nine countries have signed an international convention banning the use of anti-personnel mines. Syria, the United States and Russia are not signatories.
Three months ago, Hajisa told CNN his dangerous de-mining work was an obligation.
“Its my duty,” he said. “If I don’t do this, how will the refugees escape from the regime? They face two choices, either be killed by snipers and tanks, or be killed by landmines. The refugees must have a safe place to escape to.”
Hours after surviving Saturday’s land mine blasts, Hajisa insisted that his team had previously cleared the path he and his friends were traveling on.
“We passed that side of the border many times and there were no mines,” Hajisa said. “That means these must be new mines, recently laid-down mines that must have been buried this month.”